(From left) Dr. Mintoo Patel, Dr. James Hawker, Nancy Morrissey, Amy Bohan, Dr. Charlotte Pressler, Lauren Dutcher (a student who is assisting Woods on his research), and Griffin Woods

AVON PARK, Fla. – May 17, 2019 – South Florida State College (SFSC) Honors Program students Nancy J. Morrissey and Griffin Woods were recently selected as 2019 Portz Interdisciplinary Fellowship recipients for their research on genes that may be involved in the development of cancer cells. They were two of only seven students nationwide to receive this award. In fact, Morrissey and Woods are the first students from a two-year college to be selected for this fellowship. The other five recipients are undergraduates at four-year universities.

Through the fellowship, Morrissey and Woods will receive stipends of $1,000 each to support their research project.

Although the actual title of their research spans an entire paragraph, Dr. James R. Hawker Jr., chair of SFSC’s Natural Sciences Department and interim dean of arts and sciences, explained Morrissey’s and Woods’ research. “Certain cells, called endothelial cells, form blood vessels,” he said. “They can be induced to form new blood vessels in response to chemical signals. Two genes—endoglin and ALK-1—are receptors. In other words, they’re molecules in cells that receive a signal from outside the cell and turn it into a response. Endoglin and ALK-1 are receptors on endothelial cells that have been shown to be involved in the formation of blood vessels. They may be also involved in cancer cells in metastasis.”

During their research, Woods’ activity will focus on measuring biological activity and the binding of growth factors that activate these receptors. Morrissey will determine how the endothelial cells interact with cancer cells through the endoglin and ALK-1 genes.

“This research is important because it provides clues on how endothelial cells and how cancer can control vessel growth,” Dr. Hawker said. “For the students, they learn how to think and conduct science research. It greatly increases their learning of biology beyond the classroom and prepares them for transfer to a four-year university.”

The Portz Interdisciplinary Fellowship, through the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC), was launched in 2010 through a gift from John and Edythe Portz, who were pioneers and advocates of Honors education. The fellowship provides a means to highlight the research of Honors Program students from two- and four-year colleges and universities.

“The faculty panel which evaluates the fellowship applications is focused on how students work in multiple disciplines,” said Dr. Don Rosenblum, chair of the Portz Interdisciplinary Fellowship selection committee and dean of the Farquhar Honors College at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “For each winning project, these students stand out in terms of creativity and inventiveness within their projects. The students selected for the 2019 fellowship brought diverse skills, and it was clear that there was a strong collaborative relationship with faculty.”

Morrissey and Woods had requested to do the cancer research while taking their Honors seminar, “Molecular Biology for the 21st Century,” with Dr. Hawker. The students are also supported in their research by Dr. Mintoo Patel, adjunct professor of biology, and Amy Bohan, instructor of biology.

“In my experience, two-year college students are not, typically, afforded the opportunity to participate in applied research with such world-class faculty as we have at SFSC,” said Dr. Sidney Valentine, SFSC vice president for academic affairs and student services.

“Nancy and Griffin are two academically strong students,” said Dr. Charlotte Pressler, director of the SFSC Honors Program and professor of English and philosophy. “SFSC has many talented students who can compete on a national level.”

Dr. Pressler expounded on the extent to which SFSC is committed to preparing its students for transfer to four-year colleges and universities in the natural sciences. “The research projects in our Natural Sciences Department are the real thing,” she said. “It’s not a demonstration of concepts in a chapter. The students are doing real science, making new knowledge in procedures that scientists in labs use. It goes beyond what they would learn in a textbook. And at SFSC, we can mentor students in a way that is not possible in a larger college or university—at least not at a beginning undergraduate level. Hands on, individual attention and mentoring is what we’re offering students.”

Morrissey graduates from SFSC with her Associate in Arts in spring 2020 and plans to work toward a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and Culture at a Florida university. Woods, who was a dual enrollment student at SFSC, graduates with an Associate in Arts in spring 2020. He plans to work toward a bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Florida.